Friday, January 27, 2017

Travel Cuba Photo Dump and More Stories

In my prior post I talked about some of the fascinating parts of visiting communist Cuba today. These first two photos help to illustrate. I only saw one clothing store while visiting 4 different cities, and this is it. A used clothing store in Villa Clara.
Clothing (used) store in Villa Clara, Cuba
Similarly, here is Debora checking out the goods at one local store that is representative of many. Look closely to see the selection of deodorant, nail polish and cigarettes.
Debora window shopping

One of Cuba's most famous residents was Ernest Hemingway. He lived on some land on the outskirts of Havana from 1939-1960 and his house is still just as he left it. Here I am toasting to him with a daiquiri at the famous La Floridita bar. His most famous Cuban quote is: my mojito at La Bodeguita, my daiquiri at La Floridita. This bar was the only place I visited that served severely overpriced drinks.
Drinking daiquiris with Hemingway at the famous La Floridita bar
Debora and I also visited Hemingway's house. It's full of hunting trophies and hundreds of books, a cozy place on a nice sized chunk of land with a pool and tennis court. Apparently Hemingway supplied Fidel with some guns to aid the revolution. The vintage taxi we took out to his house needed a little engine adjustment en route. Many of these old cars have newer Hyundai engines in them, and the exteriors and interiors are near spotless.
Our vintage taxi to Hemingway's house needed tweaking halfway there
It seems that many of the vintage cars are driven by the son or grandson of the original owner. A Cuban can make way more money driving a taxi for tourists than being a doctor or engineer, which are paid a flat government wage.

There were lots of horses, too. Many locals outside of Havana use a horse and buggy setup to get into town. Here's a picture of me on the way to go swimming in a cave outside of Vinales, the most scenic portion of our trip.
Horseback ride to go cave swimming in Valle de Vinales

This was from a different horseback tour ride to a waterfall outside of Trinidad, Cuba. 
Cowboy Kirk
But if you know me, you know that I prefer to ride a steel horse. This first photo is in Valle de Vinales, a couple hours west of Havana. This is where they grow the best tobacco. The mountain in the back is called a mogote. So beautiful.
Hills in background are called "mogotes"
 And this photo is riding to the beach near Trinidad.
Bicycling the gorgeous countryside near Trinidad, Cuba on way to the beach
Speaking of tobacco, this gentleman is a campesino. He's a farmer of tobacco and his family has been doing it for generations. 90% of his tobacco is sold to the government (at a friendly price) who produces the Cuban brand names that you see for sale around the world. 10% he keeps and sells to tourists like me. He says that the government uses chemicals in the fermentation process, but that he does not.
Kirk with a campesino who has been growing tobacco and making cigars his whole life

Drinkin' rum and smokin' stogies, Cuba style
The few cigars I smoked in Cuba left no lingering aftertaste the morning after, as I've experienced in the past on the few occasions I've smoked a cigar in the States. I also drank more local rum than I planned to one night with zero negative effects the next day. Quality matters.

Care for some light reading material? All the new books that I saw for sale were government propaganda. There are some used booksellsers out on the streets, however, if you're looking for something a little less Communist.
Light reading material. All propaganda.
In 1959 Che Guevara led a team of revolutionaries that used a bulldozer to tear up track and derail a train at this spot in Villa Clara. The resulting battle effectively won the revolution for Fidel. Today the place is a monument and Villa Clara has many Che monuments.
Site of blown-up train that won the Revolution for Fidel in 1959
Fun band in Villa Clara playing in a bar beneath the image of Che. There is also a big mausoleum to Che with statues and gardens and stuff. A tourist can walk through the mausoleum and see where Che is entombed. Since Che died young (assassinated by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967) he was held up as a martyr by Fidel. Fidel just died a few months ago and his ashes are in a much more modest gigantic boulder near his birth place in Santiago de Cuba.
Local bar and band

Baseball! The nastional pastime of Cuba. And it was playoff season when I was there. The stands filled up by gametime with maybe 5,000 people. The stadium was beautiful, if a little old and rough around the edges. Reminded me of a AAA ballpark in the USA. Usually all sporting events and concerts are free in Cuba (Communism for the win!), but this playoff tilt cost $.04 (not a typo).
Ham sandwiches for sale before national playoff baseball game

Lots of great music, too. Bands like this were common in the tourist town of Trinidad. I enjoyed listening and gave them $1.
Typical Cuban street musicians

Here is Debora relaxing at dawn in the main square of Trinidad, a really beautiful city.
Debora relaxes at sunrise in lovely Trinidad, Cuba

Need your bicycle fixed? This is the place in Vinales.
Bicycle repair in Vinales, Cuba
Debora and I spent our last night at this hotel in Vinales. The views here are spectacular and we had a great time riding bicycles and horses back through the mogotes and tobacco farms.
Hotel pool looking over Valle de Vinales
I think that's it for Cuba. I had the pleasure of spending 3 days in San Diego, CA USA with my sister and aunts and now I'm writing this from Sapporo, Japan. Crazy to be in Japan after 14 months in Latin America.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Travel to Cuba: Initial Reflections

Everyone has an image of Cuba in their head: Old cars and crumbling architecture, cigars and rum, Fidel and Che.

After two weeks in Cuba the thing that is sticking with me most is the reality of Communism. It seems like a good theory -- everyone is equal, free education and health care, dominant international sports teams. 

But what happens when human nature is introduced? Curiosity, ego, jealousy, greed.

And what happens when tourists from other wealthier nations are introduced? Taxi drivers that make 10x what a doctor makes. Your big house (built during the prior regime) is bigger than mine and can be sub-divided into 4 rentable rooms while I only have 1 room to rent (and hence 1/4 the desirable external income as you).

If you can believe the government-reported statistics, Cuba scores very high in literacy rate and life expectancy. Little boys are playing stickball in the streets without fear. Crime is very low. Illegal drugs are...ahem...difficult to find.

It seems to me that Communism can only work well in a nation where all it's citizens are enlightened beings. Where no person desires any more than any other person.

My taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana cost $30, almost what a Cuban M.D. makes in a month. That's why virtually every man who has access to a family automobile purchased before the 1959 revolution has a degree in engineering but is a taxi driver.

It was quite fascinating to witness and begin to understand. Perhaps Communism wasn't as dangerous of a threat to Democracy as Americans thought in the years after WWII. China and Vietnam are doing fairly well, but their Communism is blended with a strong dose of Capitalism.

Pondering Communism in the gorgeous Cuban countryside
I spent a wonderful 15 days in Cuba and recommend the experience.  It is important to understand, though, that a visitor is seen as a revenue source to many Cubans. And can you blame them? We can't all be perfect Communists.

The mountainous countryside is beautifully peppered with tobacco and sugarcane plantations. West of Havana is the prime tobacco country and the mountains (here called mogotes) are drool-worthy.
Tobacco farms and mogotes beyond the hotel pool in Valle Vinales
Many European and Canadian tourists stay at huge resorts on the north coast east of Havana. With the proper frame of mind, you will find Cuba to be a wonderful travel destination. Perhaps you could even stay away from the colorful locals behind the safe walls of a Trump Resort one day soon.

Other Observations

  • Travel in Cuba was significantly more expensive for me than in Mexico, mostly due to the high transportation costs. A mojito cost $3 at most bars and a good entree cost about double that.
  • The only billboards we saw were government propaganda. Lots of pro-Fidel imagery just a couple months after he died.
  • The horse-drawn buggy is still alive and well in rural Cuba
  • 90% of the tobacco is sold by the farmers at a low price to the Cuban government who is responsible for the world-famous brands like Cohiba, Romeo and Juliet, Montecristo. 10% the farmers keep for themselves and sell to tourists.
  • Virtually all the stores and restaurants you see are government run. The restaurant business is becoming more privatized, though.
  • There are 6 television stations in Cuba, all run by the government. The only satellite dishes are seen at hotels. By contrast, in the poorest slums of Brazil and in rural Morocco, one sees many satellite dishes atop private homes.
  • All sporting events and concerts are free to attend, but there was a price for the playoff baseball game I went to: $.05 (that is not a typo).
  • On TV propaganda I saw a lot of buddy time between Fidel and Hugo Chavez, former ruler of Venezuela. But saw no propaganda of Fidel with Putin or any other Russian or Chinese leaders.
I'll share more about Cuba in another post.